Day 787: A Splatter Of Ketchup (Or Catsup)

originally published February 25, 2014

Of all the emails I receive, not counting those that pitch erectile magic or discount OxyKAUNTtiN, many implore me to tackle some of the most serious issues of our time in my articles. Sure, it’s fun to read about thought experiments or serial killers, but when am I going to tackle society’s real concerns? Like whether ‘catsup’ or ‘ketchup’ is the correct word?

Well, that’s an easy one. It’s ketchup – most of the world knows this, and most of the world will back me up with nary an argument. But that’s ‘most’ of the world – surely there must be an argument for the other side, right? After all, it’s not like the condiment was invented here. Surely its origin story would reveal the truth.

So here I go, diving valiantly into the fiery pool of controversy, my virtual word-sword ready to smite one side of this debate with molten splatter and expensive CGI effects, before I turn and walk slowly away from the topic, allowing it to explode behind me. Yes, this is the noble bad-assery of my duty: to find the facts and Michael-Bay the shit out of them.

As with many of our most prized (and traditionally, most American) delicacies, the origin of Ketchup hails from far, far away. Probably from China, though the true origin story of our favorite condiment may be a bit foggier than we historians would like. In the sunny Fujian region along China’s southeast coast there existed a brine made from pickled fish, known as ‘kôe-chiap’ in the Xiamen accent or ‘kê-chiap’ in the Zhangzhou accent. This is most likely the sauce which western explorers brought home.

Or was it? They may have instead landed in Malaysia where the local ‘kicap’ (which is pronounced ‘kichap’) sauce was king. Kicap is also a fish sauce, so it’s quite likely the word originated in one of these two nations. I don’t think linguists in either country care enough to look too deeply into this one. Either way, the viscous red goo we know and love had its origins as fish squeezin’s.

There’s one other theory, that ‘ketchup’ comes from the French ‘escaveche’, meaning ‘food in sauce’, which can then be traced back to the Arabic word ‘Kabees’, or ‘pickling with vinegar’. But given that the first citing by the Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘catchup’ as “a high East-India sauce”, I think we can scratch the Franco-Arabic theory from the books.

But this melding of the two spellings leaves the big question open: ketchup or catsup, and why do these things mean the same damn thing?

The Xiamen word ‘kôe-chiap’ may have been heard as ‘ke-tsiap’ by early Dutch traders, so one could conclude that ketchup comes from the Malay ‘kichap’ and catsup from the Chinese ‘kôe-chiap’, but that’s too simple. Also, it doesn’t explain why everyone in the English-speaking world prefers the word ketchup, apart from some regions, mostly in the American south, where catsup is king. It looks as though ‘catsup’ is merely a faulty Anglicization of the briny fish-goop that came over from the Far East, case closed. That’s not to say you catsuppians should abandon your treasured word; after all, faulty Anglicization is how most of our language was built in the first place.

It could be worse. You could live in Wales, Scotland or Ireland where some people simply call it ‘red sauce’. That’s a frighteningly generic term, one that I – as a devourer of a chemical-rich North American diet – would shy away from. The British (and others in the Commonwealth countries) use the terms ‘ketchup’ and ‘tomato sauce’ interchangeably, whereas here our tomato sauce is the stuff we throw on pasta.

And if you’re dumping Heinz on your linguine, please don’t invite me for dinner.

Ketchup made a Fanta-esque splash into New World kitchens, meaning it showed up in a colorful variety of flavors. You had walnut ketchup, oyster ketchup, classic olde-tyme fish-juice ketchup, and so on. Mushroom ketchup is still a popular product in the UK. It took until 1801 before the first homemade tomato ketchup recipe was published. Sandy Addison gets credit for this one; I searched all over for more information about Sandy but apart from this one culture-rocking concoction, history appears to have forgotten the name. It took a while to catch on though; back then Americans weren’t sure it was safe to eat raw tomatoes.

The recipe calls for 100 tomatoes, boiled with a half-pound of salt then pressed through a fine sieve with a silver spoon before adding other ingredients like nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and pepper. By 1837 a farmer named Jonas Yerks had taken ketchup to a national level. But it was F. & J. Heinz who put the focus on the pectin-rich ripe tomatoes, which contained more vinegar and made for a goopier, slower-dripping sauce. And just like that, billions of unborn French fries cried out in triumph.

In this part of the world, no condiment can hold a splattery candle to the majesty of ketchup. Some like their Extra Fancy (with a higher specific gravity and at least 33% tomato solids), and some will never stray from their Heinz loyalty. Some (including my wife) will dunk their bacon in ketchup – which to me is a sacrilege against the holiest of cured meats – and others will desecrate a hot dog with its crimson ooze.

The challenge for most of us is to find the optimum method for ketchup extraction from an old-timey (meaning not a plastic squeeze) bottle. Slamming the base of the bottle works for some, while others are content to wait until the great gods of fast food deem it time for the ketchup to seep out. I’ll never condone scraping it out with a thin butter knife. That’s cheating, and it just feels wrong.

I learned the correct answer from the retro-chain Johnny Rockets. The servers always poured the ketchup on my fries at the table (it was a helpful gimmick), and they would simply tap the bottom of the bottle’s neck against their hand, right about where the ‘57’ can be found on the Heinz label.

Xanthan Gum is the reason ketchup is so damn finicky. It thickens the sauce and slows it down, while giving it a ‘shear thinning’ property that allows it to temporarily get thinner when force is applied to it, either by shaking or tapping the bottle. I won’t pretend to understand the specifics. Ketchup is magic, I’m fine with that.

Heinz is delightfully predictable, though I suspect we haven’t yet tapped the potential within the ketchup world. There are other brands, and certainly the organic varieties are a bit healthier, but I can see craft ketchup replacing craft beer at the forefront of our weird little zeitgeist someday. It could be the big food fad of the late 2010’s. Just a thought – you tomato engineers may want to leap on this trend before it takes off.

You can thank me with a free bottle.

Oh, and please don’t do the Heinz thing and make it blue or purple. Nobody wants that.

Day 744: The Mothers Of All Sauces

originally published January 13, 2014

In traditional French haute-cuisine (which is defined as French food that is neither fries nor onion soup nor yellow bottled mustard), sauces are the most crucial part of the dish. If you think of your entrée as Star Wars, the sauce would be John Williams’ indelible score. French food without sauce would be like Italian food without tomatoes, Chinese food without rice, or traditional American hot dogs without anus-meat and scads of unpronounceable chemicals. It just isn’t done.

Any great tradition in gastronomy deserves a semblance of order from which the chaos of creativity may embark. The first man to attempt to reconcile the numerous sauces in which French cuisine was swimming was Marie-Antoine Carême, who was very much a male despite ‘Marie’ being his first name. Carême was a celebrity chef in the early 1800’s who concocted hundreds of liquid pleasures in which he could smother his chicken, beef, or whatever. His kitchen-mate, Dennis Leblanc, summarized Carême’s work into four primary sauces.

The Mother Sauces.

Auguste Escoffier, who rolled into food-fame a full century later, altered the list and proclaimed there to be five Mother Sauces from which all other sauces would derive. Escoffier is the architect behind what we now call French cuisine. He invented a number of dishes, from fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt (strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet, and how the hell did I just type that without drooling?) to plain ol’ Melba toast. But his epic tome, Le Guide Culinaire, left his strongest fingerprint on the edible art of French cooking – those amazing sauces.

Béchamel sauce, named for the marquis de Béchamel, is a white sauce made from a roux of butter and flour cooked in milk. Béchamel was the chief steward to Louis XIV. I don’t know what that means, though I suspect it has nothing to do with bringing him wine or grabbing him an extra pillow from the overhead compartment. It was an honorary title, as the marquis was a successful businessman and patron of the arts. In French society, having a vineyard or a province named after you was alright, but a rich creamy sauce? That’s top-tier respect, baby.

With a  bit of creativity, Béchamel sauce has been turned into Mornay sauce (with cheese), Soubise sauce (with butter-sweated onions – and if your onions sweat butter you’re doing something right), and cheddar cheese sauce (with cheddar cheese, Worcestershire and dry mustard – not quite that powdery stuff inside a Kraft Dinner packet). Béchamel sauce isn’t the most fattening sauce you can put on food, but if you rule out chocolate sauce, lard sauce and bacon-fat sauce, it’s up there.

Sauce Espagnole, which translates to ‘Spanish sauce’, has pretty much nothing to do with Spanish cuisine. Louis XIII’s bride had a fleet of Spanish chefs working for her, and when they added some Spanish tomatoes to a traditional brown sauce (pleasing the king and no doubt sparing them the guillotine), the sauce was named in their honor. This one takes a bit of work, beginning with a veal stock roux, browned bones and pieces of beef, then highlighted by a splash of pureed tomatoes or tomato paste toward the end. A reduction requires a heap of time, so I wouldn’t plan on throwing some Espagnole sauce together as a last-minute enhancement for the Pizza Bites you’ll be serving on Super Bowl Sunday, but if you put in the work, you’ll be happy you did.

Throw in some mushrooms and this mother sauce will give birth to sauce aux champignons. Add some red wine and shallots and you’ll have your family tripping over their tongue to pronounce ‘sauce Bourguignonne.’ Mix in the stock of the meat you’ll be serving with the sauce and create a demi-glace – also invented in Auguste Escoffier’s kitchen. One could argue that the brown gravy in which we Canadians drown our fries and cheese curds to make poutine is a distant relative to sauce Espagnole. But I wouldn’t argue that with a French chef. It could get ugly.

The direct translation of ‘sauce velouté’ is ‘velvety sauce’. When Marie-Antoine Carême’s four Mother Sauces were re-imagined by Escoffier as five, the ‘sauce Carême’ was simplified (or ‘muntzed’, if you will) into sauce velouté. Once again you begin with a roux – flour and butter – and blend it with a light stock, either chicken or fish. And once again, the possibilities with this sauce are numerous.

A few drops of lemon juice, some cream and egg yolks will give you Allemande sauce. Since ‘Allemande’ is French for ‘Germany’, this sauce was simply called ‘sauce blonde’ during World War I. It was the French equivalent of the ‘Freedom Fries’ debacle, I suppose. Also, you can make Suprême sauce by adding some cream and mushroom liquor (which apparently exists) to a chicken velouté.

Again, there is no ‘diet’ version of these. So why are there relatively few obese French people? Blame that on quality, non-chemically-treated ingredients. Or maybe it’s all that bicycling and accordion music.

This is easy. Sauce tomate is quite literally tomato sauce. You could easily say that marinara sauce, pizza sauce, or that flavorless red brine in which the pasta-globs swim inside cans of Chef Boyardee products are derivatives of sauce tomate. The French hardly have a claim to inventing the stuff; anywhere tomatoes were eaten, someone figured out that a quality sauce can be made from its inner goo.

The traditional French sauce tomate features a roux (of course), as well as bay leaves, thyme, garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, pureed or fresh tomatoes, onions, and salt belly of pork. This sounds right to me – bacon should have a presence in the Mother Sauces.

Perhaps the most exquisite of all Mother Sauces (though really, that’s a tough call), hollandaise sauce actually has its origins in Dutch cuisine from the 16th century – at least that’s where it was first published. This is one of the trickier sauces to create, despite its simple ingredients list of egg yolks, melted butter, lemon juice, salt and a dash of cayenne or white pepper. This is an emulsion, meaning its ingredients instinctively want to get the hell away from one another. The trick is to pour the liquid butter into the egg yolks slowly while constantly thwacking the mix with an egg beater. It’s an art, but one which is truly worth the effort.

Hollandaise sauce – found on better Eggs Benedict dishes everywhere, though watch out for places like Denny’s that use a powdered mix – can be tweaked into Béarnaise sauce with some vinegar, shallots and spices. Sauce Maltaise is hollandaise with a bit of blood orange mixed in. Sauce Chantilly is hollandaise with some whipped cream folded into its liquidy bliss. Add a splash of reduced sherry with the whipped cream and you’ve got Sauce Divine.

Divine indeed. French dishes – in particular the Mother Sauces – are meant to lure your tongue into a heavenly swoon. They won’t be served through a fast-food window and you’ll need one hell of an abacus to keep track of their Weight Watcher point-counts, but it’s worth the ride. Even if, like me, you’re lactose intolerant. Grab some pills or cancel your out-of-bathroom appointments for the rest of the day. You’ll be happy you did.

Day 711: That Sweet, Sumptuous Slush

originally published December 11, 2013

Whilst wandering the school grounds during recess, pondering the lunacy of those hearty Edmonton settlers who determined that this frozen hellscape would somehow not be a ludicrous place to plop down a new town, I noticed a boy in my grade who was eating snow from his be-mittened hand.

“Enrique,” I queried, as even as a child I possessed the foresight to change the kid’s name to avoid a lawsuit, “what on earth are you doing?”

“It’s like the whole world is a giant Slurpee, just without the flavor!” The kid had enthusiasm and a downright sparkly approach to life, I’d give him that. Dumb as a moss-tucked stump, but he knew how to make the best of a situation.

I’d imagine that most local convenience store owners are counting on somewhat unimpressive sales of their Slurpee-like products today, with temperatures not expected to slither up past 15-below with the wind chill. Though I suspect a handful of parched throats around the city will crumple up logic and reason and internal temperature control and grab themselves a slushy treat anyway.

Some of us will down a cold beer tonight – why not a Slurpee?

The Slurpee brand name belongs exclusively to 7-Eleven, though many of us forged our addictions at other stores with Slushes, Chillers, Mr. Mistys, Slusherinos, Squishees, Slush-Puppies, and Half-Frozen Sugar Juice (some stores in my town were very literal). My local corner store had the machine stashed behind the counter, leaving the artistry of crafting the perfect flavor mix in the hands of the same ornery Chinese guy that stacked the pornos at the back of the magazine rack so we kids couldn’t reach them. The world seemed so far beyond our control back then.

Now consumers are faced with a veritable buffet of Half-Frozen Sugar Juice options, starting with Coke, Mountain Dew, Wild Cherry, and heading deep into the murk of the weird. It’s not uncommon to find a spout of some unidentifiable concoction with a generic ‘youthful’ name like Hurricane Rush, Arctic Fire-Squad, Smashing Sour Green, Supertastic Splash-Berry, Pokemon Bieber-Twerk, and so on. I try to avoid getting sucked into the smarmy vortex of drinking a marketing ploy, but sometimes it happens.

A store in Quebec known as ‘Couche-Tard’ (yep, really) is known for combing the dark side for flavor names, as evidenced below.

The history of Slurpees can be traced to a Kansas-born farm-boy named Omar Knedlik. Omar came home from WWII and opened up an ice cream store. In the late 1950’s he bought into a Dairy Queen franchise in Coffeyville. One day his soda fountain crapped out, and he was forced to serve bottles which he kept stashed in the freezer. The drinks turned out to be immensely popular once they’d hit that semi-frozen slush state. Omar set to work developing a machine that could combine flavor syrup, carbon dioxide and water chilled to just the right temperature so that he could sell these things without relying on the happenstance of accident.

His first workable prototype featured a car’s air conditioning unit hooked up to the back. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job. Omar enlisted the brilliance of artist Ruth E. Taylor to come up with the machine’s name and outward appearance, and the ICEE machine was born. The machines were an easy sell to local convenience stores, and when Dallas-based 7-Eleven heard about them, it was love at first slurp.

At this time, 7-Eleven’s reach extended around much of the country, with most stores operating between the hours of 7AM and 11PM, hence the name. It was a much catchier moniker than their original name: “Tote’em Stores”, because people would show up and ‘tote’ their stuff away. They made a licensing deal with Omar’s ICEE Company and tasked their ad-man, Bob Stanford, to come up with a new name. Bob went for simplicity – people make a slurping sound when they drink these things, so he called them Slurpees.

Omar may have launched the frozen drink into the world, but 7-Eleven would tweak and twirl it into a cultural frenzy. In addition to their wonky flavor combinations, 7-Eleven also gave us the edible straw, introduced to little fanfare in 2003. They also launched a dual-chamber cup with a double straw and a valve mechanism to allow for individual flavor selection or a mix from both vessels. Do we really need this much technology in our Slurpee consumption? They might be over-thinking this.

If 7-Eleven really wanted to help us out in the lab, they should try to develop some sort of Slurpee technology that can eliminate brain-freeze, or ‘Slurpee-head’ as we used to call it. This happens when the sudden contact of something cold shocks the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth. Your sinus capillaries freak out, much like what happens when your face turns a glowing crimson in cold weather, except with brain-freeze they send a message of “Sweet Fickity-Fuck, Knock That Off!!!!” to the brain.

At least we think that’s what happens. It may have to do with the blood flow to your anterior cerebral artery – too much sudden blood pumping through there sends pain through the nerves. Wow. You’d think by now someone would have figured this out with some degree of certainty.

The cure is pretty simple: press your tongue against the roof of your mouth and regulate the temperature. Also, you can tilt your head back for about ten seconds, but these headaches usually disappear after about ten seconds anyway so that remedy might be a myth.

To my palette, the Slurpee hit its apex when the good folks at Fat Tuesday set up six locations along the Las Vegas Strip and offered grown-up slushie treats that were chock full o’ booze. You’ve got to be careful in Vegas – hotels will happily serve you up a $12 daiquiri in a fancy collector’s glass featuring a meagre ounce and a half of alcohol. Fat Tuesday will take your taste buds on safari upon a hearty river of intoxicating goodness. Two of their $12 drinks will have you doing the lambada in the fountains at Caesar’s Palace with an albino Elvis impersonator and waking up drifting among the Bellagio fountains on a makeshift raft fashioned from stripper-leaflets. Now that’s Vegas.

But for those of us stuck up here in the desolate tundra, we’ll have to settle for the sugar-heavy Frozen-Blast-Boom-Batman-Berry treats. It’s not beyond the realm of feasibility to suck one of these back on a day like this – after all, the Slurpee capital of the world is another town known for its torturous winters: Winnipeg, Manitoba. For 14 years in a row, Winnipeggers have been averaging 188,833 Slurpees sold per month, compared with about 179,700 per month elsewhere in Canada.

So maybe it’s a winter treat after all.

Day 677: Pouring A Frothy Pint O’ Culture

originally published November 7, 2013

As the cast of characters in my young adult life glide into the final act, preparing for their bow and subsequent re-emergence in the sequel (Middle-Age: The Saggening), I find myself reflecting on the various story arcs that brought me here. The salient plot point of alcohol has been a recurring motif, though its impact on the narrative has shuffled and shifted from scene to scene. I sincerely hope it continues to pop up in the script, right up until the point where my character is killed off, the actors take their final curtain and the credits roll.

(I know, there are no rolling credits in a theatrical performance, but I simply couldn’t beat a metaphor that far into the ground without clumsily tripping over it at the end.)

The first time I got drunk, my aim was to get drunk. I was curious. Then I drank alcohol to feel more grown up. In my later teens, I drank so I could get drunk. Since then it has been more about the taste, the negation of my concerns over my wretched dancing, and most recently it’s how I earn a paycheck. Lately it has also taken on a somewhat anthropological tint, as I find myself ever curious over the world’s drinking cultures.

Canada, or at least the tiny crevice of Canada in which I’ve lived, is not big on custom or tradition. Maybe it’s because 125 years ago this city was nothing more than a trading post and snow depository, but we Edmontonians don’t tend to wrap ourselves up in habit and history. It’s good practice to offer an open bar at your wedding, but I’ve been to several where that doesn’t happen. Perhaps coincidentally, I didn’t even make it to the cake-cutting at those events.

One little dollop of etiquette that has morphed with age has been the issue of bottle-remains at house parties. As teenagers, money and alcohol were among our most precious commodities, and as such it was customary for us to bring home whatever alcohol we had failed to consume at our friend’s Friday night bash. After all, we might need it the next day. But as I crept into adulthood and donned the cloak of domesticity, the universally proper etiquette of leaving unconsumed hooch behind as a thank-you to the host took over.

I still see this one breeched from time to time. Listen, if you’re making your exit from the party and you’re fishing your last two Heinekens out from behind the sour cream and cheese slices in your host’s fridge, you’re being an asshole. Just accept it.

Over in England, where centuries of etiquette stroll hand-in-hand with centuries of alcohol consumption, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. They’re known as Greaves’ Rules, named for London journalist William Greaves, who printed them in semi-jest in the Today newspaper, but which have been reprinted and embraced by the pub-going community as the unspoken law of the land. When you stroll into a pub, you’ll be buying your buddy a pint. As other friends show up, they get added to the round, and you keep paying. This continues until your drink is below the halfway point, or until someone else is almost out and ready to spring for the next round.

If you’re participating, you’ll be doing so with your wallet as well as your gullet. If someone new shows up while you’re in “the chair” (buying the booze), you should invite them to join you, trusting they’ll hit you back by paying for the next round. It’s all about fair play and good sportsmanship. Also, these rules are handy for reducing ale-fuelled violence over money matters.

One seemingly inescapable aspect of drinking culture is binge drinking. I always considered a ‘binge’ to involve multiple sunrises aboard a non-stop flume ride of lost gulps and splashy toasts, until a drum-roll blackout delivers a whomping crash cymbal in the form of a monstrous hangover. I’ve never experienced such a binge, as I’ve always broken up my drinking exploits with at least a few hours of sleep, a half-pot of coffee and some bacon. But some folks believe drinking with the sole purpose of getting hammered – even just for an evening – is ‘binge drinking’. Well, shit.

Northern Europeans – Scandinavians, Latvians, and of course the Brits and the Irish – are more prone to binge drinking than those down south. In nations where giving alcohol to youngsters is not seen as a sin of prison-worthy proportions, binge drinking is less common. It’s all a question of culture, and really isn’t that the most entertaining window into any culture? How its people choose to fuck themselves up?

The Russefeiring celebration in Norway involves synchronized fashion choices, crazy parties, and unabashed heavy drinking once a year. It started back in 1905 with red caps for high school graduates, and has evolved into a massive drinking bonanza for high school students in their final spring semester.

Denmark doesn’t set aside a day for it, but they have the highest percentage of teenage drinkers in the world. Scary? Maybe, but when it comes to grown-up booze-snarfing, they put a lot of thought into it. ‘Hygge’ is a Danish word used to describe a cozy, friendly, candle-filled atmosphere, something the Danes try to splatter all over any drinking establishment. Danish drinkers like comfort, they like friends, and they like their drinking to be a happy event.

Over in Russia, things get a little more serious. They drink vodka, and if they mix it with anything it’ll be beer. After a toast, everyone drinks at once, and unless you’re okay looking like some pansy-ass tourist, you’ll down that glass of vodka in one manly gulp.

In Japan tradition dictates the youngest in the crowd should serve the booze to his or her elders. In China, even the clinking of glasses is regulated by custom, with the younger or lower-ranked clinker having to make contact below the rim of the table’s top dog. It’s all very elaborate. In Korea, as in Japan or China, you should never pour your own drink. Most of us in this part of the world aren’t that patient.

The Czech Republic drinks more alcohol per capita than anyone else on the planet. Still, they curtail their haste and insist upon a few traditions. First off, you must say “na zdravy” (which means “to your health”) as you toast, and you’d damn well better look your fellow drinker in the eye when  your glasses clink. If you cross arms with the other drinker during the toast, you’ll both get seven years of bad sex – though I’m not certain there’s empirical evidence to back that one up. Tap your glass against the table before drinking, and don’t spill a drop. The Czechs didn’t earn their reputation by letting drops of precious beer go to waste.

So many rules to soak in before setting off on a booze-heavy globe-hopping vacation. The key is to learn the customs, never refuse a drink, and don’t throw up on your host. And for the love of all that’s good and liquid, leave your damn leftovers behind.

Day 658: The Sumptuous Buttery World Of Popcorn

originally published October 19, 2013

The esteemed American poet James Joseph Brown Jr. once wrote, “But when I get funky, I do the sap. And when I want lovin’, mother, she got to have. Say, you got to have a mother for me. Yeah, popcorn.”

And so it was.

Popcorn is one of the most universally beloved snacks by folks who don’t wear braces. It can exude so many personalities, from the puckish kiss of sweet caramel to the warm seductive sploosh of melted butter to that weird pink stuff in the box with the elephant on the front. That’s the popcorn the other popcorns don’t talk to at parties. There’s something not right about that guy.

But for the most part popcorn is a friendly snack, sharing our greatest movie experiences with us and even reminding us about the importance of flossing when one of its stubborn husks decides to take refuge behind a molar. And popcorn is a big business. Americans snarf down more than sixteen billion quarts of popcorn a year, which works out to about 51 quarts per person. That’s a lot of popcorn.

There’s an old legend about the Native Americans giving popcorn to the newly-landed Europeans, but a fair amount of archeological poking around the US has uncovered absolutely no evidence to support it. Corn was, however, a major crop down South America way, around where Peru sits today, and there’s evidence of popcorn having been consumed there close to seven thousand years ago. To be clear, they found corncobs that date from around 4700 B.C. – how they extrapolated that the corn was devoured in pop form, I have no clue. But the Smithsonian Museum said it happened, so who am I to argue?

Popcorn became a fairly popular snack in America around the late 19th century. A lot of people would pour milk on it, add a dash of sweetener and call it a cereal. Sounds gross? Well, tell me that next time you pour yourself a bowl of Corn Pops. Unless you think those are gross as well, in which case you win this round.

Charles Cretors, who had already re-worked the technology of roasting peanuts to a perfection, came up with a steam-powered doohickey that could pop popcorn uniformly in oil. Gone were the days of half-burnt hand-cranked street-vendor crap-corn. Cretors had revolutionized the snacking world, and he wanted to show it off. He hauled it to the Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. the World’s Fair) in Chicago in 1893. It was a huge hit.

As it turns out, the Columbian Exposition was the nexus of popcorn development in our universe. While Charles Cretors was showing off the future of popped goodness, F.W. Rueckheim was right around the corner, demonstrating his molasses-covered “candy corn”, the first ever caramel corn to brighten up young mouths. F.W.’s brother Louis was such an ardent supporter of his brother’s vision, he borrowed it, tweaked it, and introduced Cracker Jack (with a prize inside!) in 1896.

And this was just the beginning. Right around this time the motion picture was busy getting invented, which meant the popcorn craze was about to explode (sorry) any minute now, right?

Well, not exactly.

One of the great unspoken ironies of the movies is that nobody ate popcorn while the movies were silent. Many movie houses were grand theatres, and its proprietors were diligent in keeping food out of patrons’ mouths in order to keep their plush red carpets tidy. Right around the time movie audiences were starting to follow actual speaking dialogue on the screen, a widow named Julia Braden coaxed a local Kansas City theater owner into letting her sell from her popcorn cart in the lobby. By 1931 she owned four such stands in town and was pulling in over $14,000 a year – more than $336,000 in today’s money.

As the Great Depression wore on, the relatively inexpensive snack became hugely popular. During WWII, while most candy companies had to scale down operations due to milk shortages and sugar rations, the popcorn industry thrived. It helped out particularly in the Midwest, where fields of corn was grown specifically for popping. There are six municipalities claiming to be the Popcorn Capital of the World, all stretching between Nebraska and Ohio.

There are two varieties of popped corn. On the left you’ve got your mushroom shape, which doesn’t have quite the sensuous mouthfeel of its companion, but is the preferred variety for soaking up that sweet crunchy caramel due to its less fragile nature. On the right is the esteemed butterfly popcorn. Studies have shown that people prefer the largest butterfly popcorns – and theater owners love them too. Corn kernels that yield a wider pop are terrific for a business that buys the kernels by weight but then sells them by volume. Keep in mind, the average markup on movie theater popcorn is a whopping 1,275%.

The same cob of corn can spew out both mushroom and butterfly popcorn, though hybrids have been created that can produce only one or the other. Oh, and popcorn pros call a popped kernel a ‘flake’. Good to know if you want to impress Orville Redenbacher’s great-grand-niece or something. Unpopped kernels are called spinsters. If the grand-niece is also a spinster, you might be able to marry into some of that golden popcorn fortune. Go for it!

So just how healthy is this luscious golden snack? Well, depending on how you like to eat it, you may or may not want to know.

If your favorite popcorn is air-popped, with no added butter or salt, first of all don’t invite me over for movie night. But the good news is, you’re enjoying a snack that is high in dietary fiber and antioxidants. You’re chowing down on almost no calories or fat, and zero sugar and sodium.

In the mid-1990’s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (no doubt headed up by Dr. De-buzz Killstein, Ph.D.) did some digging into movie theater popcorn sold in the US. They found that a medium buttered popcorn contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac, an order of fries, and a steak dinner. Combined. Slap on a box of Milk Duds and you might as well make candles out of your arteries. And things haven’t changed – an FDA investigation in 2010 showed that a small popcorn from the largest theater chain in the country still bursts with 29 grams of saturated fat, the equivalent of a day and a half’s recommended intake.

Sure, stats like that might make me think twice about ordering a dripping bag of extra-buttered (or extra-golden-toppinged, whatever) popcorn when I hit my next movie. But I’ll still order it. Come on… it’s popcorn, dammit!

Day 654: Craving A Bud? Better Watch What You Pour

originally published October 15, 2013

In the bustling city of České Budêjovice in the southern part of the Czech Republic, there exists a strange reminder of the mammoth reach of the American justice system. This little city of about 96,000 people is known in German and English as ‘Budweis’. Sure, they have an Academy of Sciences and the University of South Bohemia, but the place is more famous for its beer.

Czechs take their beer notoriously seriously. The country boasts the highest per capita beer consumption in the entire world, a fact that no will no doubt shock anyone who brags about the mighty beer muscles of some other ethnicity (Irish, German, Wisconsonite, whatever). The beer that gets exported from this nation tends to have a refreshing little hoppy bite, followed by a smooth and thirst-annihilating finish. They’re usually pale lagers worthy of a tall skinny glass to boast its contents’ frothy afro.

So how did this little city get embroiled in a legal feud with an American corporate giant? This is the oily murk of trademark law, a quirky booth in the back corner of the legal diner. It’s most certainly essential – we don’t want poor Ronald McDonald’s classic golden arches to be cheapened by some muffler shop that wants to cash in on the icon’s familiarity. But sometimes the world of trademark law gets a little goofy.

In 1795, years before Anheuser and Busch unleashed their Clydesdales upon the breaks between Super Bowl quarters, a group of local brewers started up Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, which is German for ‘Civic Brewhouse Budweis’. The beer became known as ‘Budweiser’ because it was made in Budweis, just as the beer made in Plzen (or ‘Pilsen’ in English) is known as Pilsner. They started exporting it to America around 1875.

Right around the same time, Adolphus Busch married Eberhard Anheuser’s daughter and began working at the family brewery. Adolphus toured around Europe in search of the next big thing, and in 1876 he introduced what would become America’s first national beer brand, named for the style he was trying to emulate. Budweiser became the product that vaulted Anheuser-Busch to a household name. So when the original concoctors of Budweiser-style beer began peddling their brew around the US, it became a matter of contention.

In 1895 the Budweiser Budvar Brewery, also from the city of Budweis, started selling their product in the same market. Budvar and Bürgerliches insisted that ‘Budweiser’ was a generic term. In 1907, Anheuser-Busch took the matter to court. Theirs was the beer selling by the vat-load around the country, and they didn’t want people to buy this foreign stuff thinking it was the same thing. The deal put into place stated that the American Budweiser brand had exclusive rights over the name at home, but it would be marketed as ‘Bud’ or ‘Anheuser-Busch B’ around Europe.

The Czech brands marketed their goods under the names ‘B.B. Bürgerbrau’ and ‘Czechvar’ in America. Everyone was happy, and nobody was stepping on anyone’s toes, except in the UK and Ireland where for some reason all three brands show up on the shelves under the name ‘Budweiser’. In 2010, Budvar won the battle for continental Europe, earning the legal right to exclusivity over the Budweiser name across the entire European Union. There are still trademark issues around the world between these two companies – the battle between tradition and the corporate monolith continues.

Where one American corporation has succeeded over a European tradition, another has laid a successful claim over a portion of the rainbow. There is a specific color, something in the neighborhood of robin’s egg blue and specifically defined by the Hex designation #81D8D0, that belongs to Tiffany & Co. When Tiffany published its first Tiffany’s Blue Book in 1845, this shade of blue was on the cover. They continued to use it in all promotional materials (and of course their trademark jewelry boxes), and earned the official Pantone custom color designation of 1837 (named for the year the company was born).

If you’re looking for a Pantone swatch of Tiffany Blue because you think it would make for a fine hue for your new loveseat or for the paint on the walls of your baby’s room, you’d be out of luck. Tiffany Blue is a trademark. They literally own the color.

You have probably used a pair of Fiskars scissors, made by a Finnish brand that’s been snipping away at the market since 1649. That orange on the plastic handle is also a trademarked color. This phenomenon came to widespread acceptance in 1995 during the US Supreme Court case of Qualitex Co. vs. Jacobson Products Co. Inc. This was a case in which Jacobson tried to market dry cleaning pads that were the same color of green-gold as those produced by Qualitex.

Dry cleaning pads. Try as I might, I can’t picture what a dry cleaning pad looks like. We’re not talking about household recognition here, this is extremely industry-specific. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had nixed the notion of color being considered as a trademark, but when the case was plopped at the feet of the highest court in the land, the decision was unanimous. The law as it was written was extremely broad in terms of what could and could not be trademarked. There was simply no reason to deny Qualitex their right to an exclusive color.

In 1987 and 1988 the Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back NBA championships. It was an exciting time to be a Lakers fan, and all over southern California people were calling for a three-peat. Coach Pat Riley heard his fans, and reacted as any smart coach would: he trademarked the word.

Riles & Co., Pat’s corporate entity, landed on a huge score with this move. Sure, the Lakers blew the 1989 season, but when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were headed for their third straight a few years later, Riley made a ton of money off any shirt, mug or ashtray with the word ‘three-peat’ on it. Cases have been brought forward as recently as 2001 in an effort to overturn this trademark, but the paperwork was all filed properly, and Pat will continue to make money off it anytime some team wants to boast via marketing materials about being on the verge of winning three straight.

It doesn’t matter that the term has been found in popular culture since 1930. It was uncommon enough and so tightly bonded with the world of professional sports that Pat Riley deserves nothing but praise for swooping in and claiming the word as his own property.

And such is the utter balls-out weirdness of trademark law.

Day 645: Luscious, Lovable Licorice

originally published October 6, 2013

As I twist off the wrapper of my final Candy Week installment, I quietly hope my sweet tooth has been suitably sated. In actual fact, the only time my words brought an unconquerable craving to my lips was the night after my Kit Kat piece. I felt no guilt in this indulgence – one flavorful reward in seven days shows an impressive forbearance on my part. Well, one so far. The jury will remain in deliberation so long as the taste of today’s kilograph on licorice remains on my fingertips.

To be more precise, today’s topic is that of liquorice, not licorice. The distinction in spelling is mostly regional, but I’m going to stick with the North American ‘licorice’, primarily because it appears in Microsoft Word’s dictionary, and I don’t feel like looking at a bunch of squiggly red lines this morning.

Unless they’re made of red licorice. Ha. See what I did there? Yep, this is a promising start.

The licorice plant is technically a legume, like beans, peanuts or alfalfa. This could be the most innocuously unimportant snippet of trivia you will hear all day. Somewhat more interesting is the fact that more than 60% of the licorice harvested and sold each year doesn’t get made into candy, but actually finds its way into tobacco. This number is down from about 90% back in 1975, when practically every American cigarette or dollop of snuff, chewing tobacco and pipe tobacco featured a touch of licorice among its myriad of  carcinogenic chemicals.

As for its inclusion in candies, the content of actual licorice is often remarkably low. Generally the ‘licorice’ we taste is enhanced with oil from the anise plant, which is completely unrelated to licorice on any botanical level. One of nature’s quirks, I suppose.

Of course if you’re looking for the hardcore stuff, the licorice equivalent of backwoods moonshine or Leary-level sugarcube acid, you’ll want to grab hold of some ‘zoute drops’ from the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where they take their licorice seriously. No need for aniseed oil here; this is the closest thing to yanking the licorice out of the ground, sprinkling some salt on it and gnashing it with a ferocious growl. The actual salt content of European salty licorice is quite low – it’s the ammonium chloride that provides the salty kick.

Don’t be alarmed by the fact that ammonium chloride is born from the reaction between hydrochloric acid and ammonia. It won’t eat through your bathtub and rot your floors, but it will provide a hell of an interesting flavor kick. These snacks can be found at specialty candy stores, not your local 7-11.

And if you haven’t already tracked down the finest candy store in your area, then your inner child has clearly died and you have moved on without mourning. Even if candy is merely an occasional indulgence in your busy life, there’s something pure and magnificent about standing in a room filled with exotic sweets in old-timey glass jars.

It’s said that Alexander the Great used to hand out licorice root to his troops because of its thirst-quenching abilities. That may or may not be true, but licorice has been known to possess expectorant properties, which might be a handy thing to know next time cold season bites you in the lungs and keeps you up at night with a cough. Be warned though, licorice will also increase your blood pressure so you may not want to make a habit out of it.

Then there’s the matter of your poop. Because of the food coloring used in the manufacture of some licorice candy, a heavy consumption can give your stool a frightening green hue. Oh, and if you’re pregnant you’d best lay off the stuff completely. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, eating more than 100 grams of licorice a week could have a detrimental effect on both the IQ and behavior of your offspring. So unless you’re okay having a sub-stupid asshole for a kid, maybe put down the Good & Plenty until you hang the VACANCY sign back on your uterus.

Speaking of Good & Plenty, we should take a moment and toss a snappy salute at America’s oldest branded candy. The snack came to be courtesy of the Quaker City Confectionary Company in Philadelphia, way back in 1893. I discovered these things during a (probably drunken) night in Las Vegas with my wife, and have been in love with them ever since. Even having learned that the pink Good & Plentys are dyed using an extract from the crushed bodies of the female cochineal insect doesn’t throw so much as a speed-bump in my adoration of the snack.

Also – and I’m surprised Calvin Klein hasn’t taken note of this – the smell of Good & Plenty was found in a study to be one of the most alluring scents to women. I’m really hoping for some anecdotal support to confirm this.

The origin story for licorice allsorts comes from George Bassett & Company, the remnants of which (owned by Cadbury in the UK) still peddle the sweets today. Apparently a sales rep named Charlie Thompson dropped a tray of samples he was showing off to a client in Leicester. The client was more taken by the mix than by the individual treats, and a legend was born. So for a real taste of tradition, dump your next bag of allsorts on the floor and get that gritty earth-crud flavor mixed in with the stuff.

If red licorice is your favorite, then you’re landing at the opposite end of the spectrum from those who relish the zoute drop experience in the Netherlands. Red licorice, as found in Twizzlers and Red Vines candy, actually contain trace amounts of licorice if any at all. Red licorice is so far removed from actual licorice, you may as well be eating a Kit Kat.

And lastly, it should come as no surprise that a naturally black candy treat has been pitched to the public with a smidgen of corporate racism.

Yes, Nigroids: the breath mint that will clear your throat and open up your singing voice, provided you don’t pop open the tin in the wrong neighborhood and get yourself punched in the throat. Ernest Jackson & Company has been selling these in England since 1900, but it wasn’t until only three years ago that they finally decided the name could be interpreted the wrong way by some folks, and gently transitioned to the ‘Vigroids’ brand.

Such a wonky way to end a sweet week of candy articles. I feel my palette has been purged of its unholy cravings and restored to a moderate balance, and I’m ready to transition back to my usual heady variety of odd tales and origins of stuff. I’ll conclude with a handy tip to increase your licorice love.

If you come across a pack of stale Good & Plenty (which appear to be the only kind I can find in Canada), just pop them in the microwave for about 18 seconds. They’ll be squishy and fresh-like as the day they were packaged, insect bits and all.

You’re welcome.

Day 644: Unwrapping The Unwanted – Worst Candy

originally published October 5, 2013

When it comes to candy, taste is truly in the tongue of the beholder. There is no Wikipedian compendium of the world’s worst candy, as there is for the worst movies, TV shows and music. My daughter, my own flesh and blood turns up her nose at the coveted Coffee Crisp bar, yet she can make an afternoon out of eating Sour Soothers and watching Nickelodeon. Does that make her wrong and me right? Well, in this case yes, but that’s not my point.

Due to the utter subjectivity of such a list, I understand I must open myself up to criticism and dissent. When I penned a piece about the fetid strip of film celluloid known as From Justin To Kelly, no one disagreed. When I bemoaned the asinine choice to put the Mini-Pops on TV, nary a soul came to its defense. I expect no such kindnesses today.

To be clear, I’m forgoing the obvious choices that I have not tried, like candied cockroaches or Buttered Potato Kit Kat. These are the drippings from my own 39 years of wisdom, collected in a pool of unappetizing dessert. Feel free to shout me down if you feel it’s necessary to do so.

Here’s one so obscure I couldn’t find a decent photo of its packaging online. I remember as a hungry child, immune to metabolic slow-down and tooth decay, every item on the candy bar shelf looked tempting. Except for the Cuban Lunch. Sure, it was an innocuous slab of peanut-laden chocolate, but the only thing I knew about Cuba back then was that they made my dad’s cigars. I didn’t want a treat that tasted like that.

Okay, the Cuban Lunch wasn’t that bad. But it was utterly forgettable, like the ass-end of a store-bought chocolate Easter bunny consumed years earlier. The wrapper was transparent, and the word ‘Lunch’ implied this was something that belonged on my plate before dessert. Who wants such complications in a simple candy bar?

Here’s one I should have enjoyed. The cherry cordial is, along with the butter cream, the apex of any box of assorted chocolates. So what is it about the Cherry Blossom that always made my skivvies scrunch? Was it the yellow cube packaging? The uninspiring Helvetica title? The way the cherry in the photo looked like it was oozing some sort of weird fruit-pus?

This snack is messy, sticky, and ultimately not nearly as satisfying as the Blossom’s cordial little cousins.

Okay, slow down. I don’t personally loathe candy corn as much as some do, but to many this stuff is the fruitcake of Halloween. I’ve heard arguments on both sides. On the one hand, candy corn is over 125 years old and used to be made by hand by the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia; It’s an American tradition. On the other, they are super-sweet with zero taste deviation from bite to bite, almost begging for an interruption by some other flavor, even if it’s a Cuban Lunch.

I’ll probably eat candy corn again in my lifetime, but given the spate of quality Halloween candy on the market now, I’m not sure candy corn can keep up.

Just as I’m sure there are folks out there who would elbow their grandmothers aside en route to the candy corn bowl, I’m sure somebody thinks highly enough of Circus

Peanuts to integrate them into their weekly menu rotation. They’re marshmallow based and sometimes banana-flavored, but chewing your way through a bag of these is like popping little bits of packing foam. Any real enjoyment of the snack will dwindle by the second or third bite, and then you’re simply packing your mouth full of fluffy shame.

I’m not sure what compels a person to enter a retail establishment, spot a bag of Circus Peanuts in the midst of an aisle filled with a veritable landscape of sweet, tasty snacking options, and decide this is the food they need to immediately convert into poo.

Here’s one that should stir up absolutely zero controversy. These might be the most loathed Halloween candies on the surface of the planet, the Kerr’s Molasses Kisses. If you’ve got kids you’ve probably seen these en masse in mid-November, the final bones of a devoured trick-or-treating haul. By then they are tooth-chippingly hard and brittle, offering a flavor that says, “Yes, this is technically candy. So… there you go.”

A kid that eats these is a kid that has decided that shitty candy is better than no candy. Watch out for these kids; they’ll grow up with an insatiable sweet tooth and either find themselves binging on sweets in order to deal with unfaceable emotions or writing a succession of ridiculous articles about candy every day for a week.

I know, it’s not a candy. But fuck Sun-Maid Raisins. No one in my neighborhood had the audacity to hand out full-size fruit on Halloween, but I’d always end up with boxes of these things. More often than not they’d come out of the box in a single sticky clump. Growing up, my only raisin exposure was these things, the kind mixed with bran cereal, the Glossette variety that was cloaked in chocolate, and the ones who inexplicably sang that Marvin Gaye song on the commercials.

When my dad moved to California, I finally sampled a real raisin, the kind that’s juicy and flavorful, like a small fruit. Sun-Maid raisins were at the bottom of the raisin heap: dry, chewy, and leaving you feeling like you just ate the recently-shed withered skin of a much tastier food.

I don’t know what I was thinking. I was eighteen years old, kicking off a night that would no doubt bring with it some quality intoxication and loudly-cranked Pink Floyd records, and I thought, “Yes. Candy in a tube. This will be perfect around 1:30am.”

Squeeze Pop is like eating toothpaste, only with tepid candy fruit flavors instead of harsh mint oozing past your tongue. There is no visceral sensation among the slime that slips between your teeth, and even the flavor is waxy and uninspiring. These things are tubes of sugary regret. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this garbage – Squeeze Pop must stay in business solely from the sheer power of curiosity.

Cinnamon toothpicks should not be sold to children. Some kids – no doubt those on the lower end of the swift-spectrum – might over-indulge in these toothpicks, leading to an all-mouth canker sore that burns from tongue-base to soft palate and probably seared off enough of my taste buds to keep me from being a supertaster. I’m just saying, maybe these should be tucked behind the counter with the cigarettes and porn.

I’ve never actually sampled the peanut-butter-in-taffy Abba-Zaba bar, though it actually looks quite good. I’m more interested in the product’s 1920’s-era packaging seen above. I’m not sure why racism was seen as a way to promote a candy’s deliciousness back then, but it was a different and complicated era, I suppose.

That’s it. Chime in with your impassioned defense of Circus Peanuts or scold me for not including your least favorite on this list. It’s okay, I can take it. At least until this sugar-high wears off, then I’ve got to take a nap.

Day 643: Forget The Romance, Just Give Me The Sugar

originally published October 4, 2013

So as the alleged flu in my gullet has evolved to a full-blown infection in the neighborhood of my poor tired uvula, I find myself still bed-bound and bored. Luckily I have reserved the opportunity to spend a few hours every day this week in the company of candy. Not actual candy – regrettably my bad fortune has not swiveled quite so drastically – but with candy as a research topic. Where my physical tongue knows only the grotesquely sweet bite of ineffective lozenges, my mind’s tongue is free to journey to my youth, and to the days when a dollar could net you a Snickers and a Fanta to wash it down.

Only today I’m steering this candy-powered word-beast away from the chocolate highway, taking the off-ramp to something a little more rooted in the days of yore, back when we were just in it for the sugar, and ten cents (even a nickel) could get us our fix.

I had the misfortune of liking almost everything on the shelf below the candy bars, from Tootsie Pops to Fizzies to SweeTarts. Were my palette of a more discriminating nature, I might have abandoned my sweet tooth after my stoner days and graduated to more sophisticated treats. But no, I loved them all. Even when the treat was disguised as nothing more than sugar in a tube.

Pixy Stix have no pretense. They don’t boast about a recipe or try to be anything more than pure flavored sugar in a tube. In the 1930s it was being sold by Sunline Inc. in St. Louis as a drink powder. But much like the way every kid has stuck a slimy finger into a tin of Kool-Aid, Sunline executive John Fish Smith watched kids foregoing the addition of water and shooting back the powder au naturel.

Sunline was sold to Rowntree, which was then bought by Nestle, and now Pixy Stix are part of the Wonka line of sugary treats, meaning you can shoot one back secure in the knowledge that one of Gene Wilder’s diminutive friends probably brewed it just for you. (Sorry, I only acknowledge old-school Wonka). The five Pixy flavors are grape, strawberry, orange, Maui punch, and… red. Seems to me they could have encouraged the Research & Development team to stretch a little further with that last one.

Sunline Inc. created some shockingly long-lasting brands based on the same simple concept. Lik-M-Aid – now called Fun Dip – is essentially Pixy Stix powder with a hard sugary stick to be used as a slimy eating utensil, to soak up the sugar for the brief trip from pouch to mouth. I liked to think the more evolved kids ate Lik-M-Aid; after all, we were using tools, not just dumping food into our gaping maw.

Wonka has its stamp all over this candy now, which really makes sense. Of all the uber-sweet indulgences of my youth, this was one of the more fun to consume. Though in retrospect, WE WERE EATING STRAIGHT SUGAR! I feel as though there should be just a smidgen of shame here somewhere.

And once again from the page of John Fish Smith at Sunline, we have SweeTarts. By 1962, parents were complaining to Smith that all his candies were messy, with powdery residue flying from the frantic, sugar-fuelled boot-heels of their over-stimulated offspring. Smith, not wanting to miss an opportunity to appease parents (and of course diversify), packed the Pixy Stix magic into solid discs.

I recall there was a larger version of the SweeTart, sold as a single thick disc slightly larger than a checkers piece, for a dime. I can’t find any photos of these though, so it’s possible this candy was simply a Pixy-wrought hallucination. I think I’ve had a few of those.

Back in the 80’s, being called a nerd was a scathing insult, not a badge of honor. That didn’t stop us from snarfing back voluminous mouthfuls of these crunchy candies from cardboard boxes equipped with dual sliding doors up top. From what I’ve heard, the candy has scantly changed, though of course the flavor offerings have shifted with the times. Where once the blue-red combo pack featured blueberry and raspberry, now it’s Totally Tropical Punch and Road-Rash Raspberry.

Nerds have come to us a breakfast cereal, a gumball center, and as a variety of jelly beans. I was always a fan of the didactic mix that taught us the limits of our palate’s patience – the Hot & Cold mix of spicy cinnamon and cool wintergreen. Come to think of it, that may have been the first candy to turn me off of sugary flavor adventures like this.

I’m sorry to say, the golden era of Runts candies may have passed us. Where once there were six flavors there are now only five: blue raspberry, watermelon and cherry have been phased out, and grape and green apple are in. Even pineapple and mango made a brief foray into the Runts world, but now we’re stuck with apple and grape. This puts a lot of pressure on the banana flavor to deliver a quality Runts experience.

One thing to note from the side of a Runts box is that the ‘serving size’ upon which the nutritional information is based consists of only twelve pieces. I don’t know how many ‘servings’ are in a box now, but I’d guess at least three or four. So you might be looking at 240 calories in a single box.

That’s a lot of juice for a little snack.

Did I start smoking at age 15 because I’d puffed on an untold number of Popeye Candy Cigarettes when I was younger? No, I started smoking because I thought it would make me look cool. And it did. But as a younger kid there was a larval-stage badassery at play, the earliest explorations of perceived rebelliousness with these candy treats.

In Canada these ‘candy sticks’ (as they now must be called) can’t be sold in packaging that looks like a pack of smokes. The things are banned outright in Norway, Finland, Ireland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. All over the world these remain some of the most controversial candies on the market.

My question is this – why Popeye? Has Popeye ever been spotted tossing down his trademark corn-cob pipe in favor of a Lucky Strike? Someone in marketing wasn’t thinking this through.

Didn’t matter, of course. I still loved the damn things.

Oh and one last thought about the aforementioned Tootsie Pop. How many licks does it take to get the middle? In the age of the internet you know someone has figured it out. Several someones, actually, and it’s now a matter of academic concern. Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania calculated an average of 144 licks. University of Michigan says 411. Purdue lands in the middle with 364 when they use their ‘licking machine’ or 252 by human tongue. Harvard’s licking machine took 2255 licks, which suggests that the folks at Harvard are not quite as adept at using their tongues as students in other schools.

There’s your controversy bomb for the day.

Day 642: Whose Broad Stripes And Bright Bars…

originally published October 3, 2013

With the cold claws of a vicious flu scraping against bone through my unguarded skin, I find that only the visions of the sweet satisfaction of treats long past can de-throb my head and un-ache my sedentary muscles. Though it’s true, my innards are craving only some tea, soup, and maybe a long-overdue nap, I’m more drawn to the happy glow of that gustatorial euphoria of my favorite candy moments. It’s more about that “Wow, this is good” feeling than the actual flavor itself.

But rather than devote today’s kilograph to a thousand-word digression about that particularly exquisite packet of Big League Chew I enjoyed when I was fourteen, I instead opt to approach the task with a sense of fairness.

I spent yesterday’s essay boasting giddily about candy that shuns the Lower 48 and calls Canada (and, let’s face it, England) home. But it would be an act of flagrant deceit not to admit that certain American confections have tickled my buds in past visits. Some of these I have tried, others simply look too intriguing not to be worthy of a hunt next time I find myself in the Land of the Free. These are the yankee candies that won’t wander north.

Without question, the bar that first prompts a hungry lunge of my candy-grubbing arm when I travel down south is the Whatchamacallit. This bar incorporates the holy trinity of candy bar essentials: peanut butter (flavoring the ‘crisp’ things), caramel and chocolate. Sure, peanuts are fine and nougat is nougat, but a blend of these three items is the stuff of rectangular delicacy. Canada has something called Special Crisp which I’m told is identical, but is notoriously hard to find in these parts. So when I dream of peanuty crisps and caramel, the word Whatchamacallit is always on the wrapper.

At least for now. In 2008 Hershey opted to make the same dreaded cost-cutting asshole move that Nestle made with Oh Henry!, namely replacing the chocolate with non-chocolate. Actually there is still chocolate in the Whatchamacallit, but with no cocoa butter they are not allowed to call it milk chocolate. Sure enough, a close-up of a modern wrapper will show the words “rich chocolatey coating” where “milk chocolate” used to be.

Oh, the fickle fallen dreams of a misspent youth.

Maybe the good people at Zagnut have the right answer (also run by the Hershey company since 1996) – just do away with any pretense of chocolate altogether. Since its inception in the 1930’s, the Zagnut bar has a touch of cocoa in the mix, but nothing that any foolhardy tongue would mistake for chocolate. This treat is all peanut butter, toasted coconut, and chocolate-free crunch.

Well, that’s not all it is. You also have to remember your sorbitan tristearate, your artificial flavors and colors, and stuff called TBHQ and PGPR, which seems a little vague for an ingredients list. But then if you were looking for healthy foods, you probably wouldn’t be fixated on the candy shelf.

I’ve never sampled the Zagnut, but I’d wolf one down, freakish preservatives be damned.

How about a Chick-O-Stick? The name sounds like you’re eating candied poultry, but the look is pure fossilized turd. Again, I’ve never tried one of these so my mockery – which is based purely on aesthetics – is subject to the vocal dissent of billions of satisfied taste buds, should they speak up. I accept that. But look at this thing. It looks like a dog treat, like some chicken-flavored Pupperoni.

Actually, that confusion had an effect on the product, which used to be packaged with a cowboy-hat-wearing cartoon chicken on the wrapper. They dropped the character in order to remind people this is a peanut butter and coconut treat, not a protein stick. Kudos to the Atkinson Candy Company though, for having a nationally-placed snack product and not having yet been bought out by either Hershey or Nestle.

And just as the Chick-O-Stick is not chicken, the Idaho Spud is not a potato. This treat is shaped like a potato, but healthily believes that anyone gazing upon its coconut-flaked exterior would have a hard time mistaking it for a starchy, tuberous crop. This too is marketed by a small-time player in the playground of Big Candy: the Idaho Candy Company. If the name seems to suggest a reliance upon its spudular star confection, well you’d be right. Though the Idaho Candy Company has produced over 50 various candy bars, only three – the Spud, the Old Faithful and the Cherry Cocktail – are still being made today.

The Idaho Spud and Old Faithful are both constructed around a marshmallow center, an ingredient that finds itself frolicking in too few bars on the shelf in my opinion. How long this little 108-year-old candy maker will remain in a marketplace dominated by two corporate titans, I don’t know. But the Spud is still a top-seller, so I suppose they’re doing fine.

A warning though. The Idaho Spud uses compound chocolate, not the real deal. For you purists out there, this could be a deal-breaker.

The Take 5… perhaps the most ambitious of all chocolate bars in this, the golden age of snacking. We had it here for a while under the name Max 5, but I think its complex blend of sugary awesomeness may not have coalesced with the average Canadian palate. This is a melding of five astounding ingredients: peanuts, caramel, peanut butter, pretzels, and chocolate. Okay, chocolatey coating. This is Hershey and while they’ll retain the purity of the Kiss and the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, second-tier treats like the Take 5 get the cheap stuff.

But what a blend. This bar fires so much flavor at you, you’ll regret not having buckled yourself in before that initial bite. I’m not one for mucking about with successful candy formulas, but I can imagine the variants on the Take 5 – a cookie instead of pretzels, a peanut butter coating instead of fake chocolate, marshmallow instead of caramel or an epidermal white chocolate layer – would be similarly fantastic.

Such happy thoughts have helped pull my murky, disease-ridden brain up from its pillow of self-pity and multi-symptom uckiness. Soon, hopefully within the next few months I’ll once again be perusing the offerings at an American convenience store, expanding my palette with one or more of the forbidden candy-shelf treasures.

Soon.